Halloween is coming up, meaning costumes and candy for some, and triggering situations for those in recovery. Halloween parties present a challenge—the chaos and temptation are rampant and dressed-up partygoers will likely be of no help, offering treats of all sorts, and maybe drugs and alcohol to go along with them. If staying at home seems unappealing—after all, that contest-winning zombie costume isn’t going to wear itself—you need to be prepared and create strategies for staying sober. Understanding the science of behaviour can help you anticipate triggers and overcome them.
Triggers for drug or alcohol use are often intensified by the anticipation of a reward—a substance, behaviour or food that gives that instant gratification feeling. Reward cues are aspects about, or things in, your environment that your brain associates with a specific reward.
The brain of a recovering addict is sensitive to reward cues, especially to things that were previously addictive to them. Exposure to reward cues can cause a person in recovery to feel intense cravings. Examples of reward cues include:
- Using one substance can cause you to crave another substance (e.g. “I only smoke cigarettes when I drink.”)
- A song, or type of music
- A scent (smelling the scent of cannabis can cause you to crave cannabis)
- Situations or people (a friend who you used to use with)
- A place or physical environment (a nightclub can cause you to crave alcohol or other substances)
- A specific mood or state
While minimizing triggers is ideal, they may still pop up unexpectedly. The most difficult part about triggers is that you may not even know when they are present. Planning a strategic response can help you realize when you are being affected by a trigger and take the right actions to defend yourself against its effects. Ideally, the best strategy is to leave the situation immediately, but this isn’t always possible.
Avoiding Your Triggers to Stay Sober
Since each person has a different set of their own triggers, it can take a lot of insight, reflection and mindfulness over a long time to gain wisdom about all of yours. We’ve suggested some common triggers that are easy to identify and avoid—these triggers can apply to many people, but we encourage you to think about specifics. Are there specific people, places, or things you may need to avoid? General categories include:
- Songs or genres of music to which, in the past, you listened while using addictive substances or engaging in addictive behaviors
- People with whom, in the past, you used addictive substances or engaged in addictive behaviors, or people who cause emotions that drive you towards using addictive substances
- Physical environments where you used to use addictive substances or engage in addictive behaviors
- Being in a situation where the addictive substances are easily accessible
- Being in the presence of people while they are using addictive substances or engaging in addictive behaviors
- Feeling extreme stress or anxiety
We encourage you to be specific. Using our general guide above, make your own list of the sounds, sights, smells, people, places, and situations that you expect will be triggers for you and that would put you in danger of relapsing. When you are making Halloween plans, make a firm commitment to avoid these triggers. Also, resolve to immediately leave any situation where you feel triggers are affecting you. Don’t be afraid to ask a loved one or friend for help; another person can hold you accountable to avoiding the items on your list can further increase your determination to stay sober.
Reward Cues and Crossover Addiction
A reward cue can also cause cravings for other rewarding substances to which you weren’t previously addicted, such as a sudden craving for cannabis where previously only alcohol addiction existed.[i][ii][iii][iv] This means that exposure to triggers may increase the risk of overindulging in other addictive substances or behaviors, even though they may not have been problems for you in the past. While you should take precautions to ensure that you don’t have access to the things to which you were previously addicted, you should also be aware of the additional possibility that triggers may cause you to crave other addictive substances. That’s why planning is important. If you leave things up to chance and don’t use mindful strategies, you may end up in an uncomfortable situation or at risk of sacrificing your hard work in recovery.
Forming a New Social Identity
Current research states that recovery is as much of a group process as it is an individual process, and social identity is an important aspect in recovery.[v] Creating a community around your recovery allows you to forge new productive relationships to support fun and nourishing sober activities. A study of 141 people with cocaine dependency showed that those with larger social networks and a higher proportion of their network that did not use substances had the most success with recovery.[vi] Halloween presents an opportunity to flex your recovery muscle and begin building new relationships to form a sober social identity. You are no longer someone who uses drugs or alcohol, or who engages in certain behaviours, even in social settings. This is a time to celebrate your recovery.
Additional Strategies for Staying Sober
To be practical, if you want to minimize your risk of relapse, avoiding going out altogether may be your best bet. Consider staying at home and inviting over a few sober friends—we promise you can have fun while sober on Halloween and creating a new tradition can help you enjoy your life in recovery. If you must go out, at least take the following precautions:
- Make a firm commitment to go home by an appropriate hour—appropriate in this case depends on your individual needs, so choose a time that you believe minimizes the chances that you will relapse.
- Make sure you can go home by yourself and are not dependent on anyone else to go home.
- Don’t offer to be the designated driver—that way, you can go home exactly when you want and you can avoid people behaving in a way that can trigger you.
- Fill your schedule for the following day with important and meaningful activities so that you will feel obligated to stay sober and get a good night’s rest. You will also have something to look forward to the next morning.
- Have at least one sober friend with you and make an agreement to look out for each other.
A More Proactive Option
While it might sound unconventional, we suggest you attend a recovery meeting on Halloween—it could feel wonderful to be a leader in your community and inspire others to have a sober Halloween. In a support meeting. you can spend your time with other people who are in the same situation, avoiding triggering situations and instead seeking a supportive environment. If it’s not a trigger for you, you could wear your best costume. EHN Canada offers a number of support groups for people in recovery from addiction and one of them may be right for you. We encourage you to check them out; going to regular meetings can increase your chance of maintaining recovery. We’d always love to have you here at a meeting.
If you would like to learn more about our support groups, or have any other questions regarding addiction, relapse triggers, sobriety planning, or one of our treatment programs, please call us. Our phone lines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week—so you can call us anytime:
- 1-800-387-6198 for Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, ON
- 1-587-350-6818 for EHN Sandstone, in Calgary, AB
- 1-800-683-0111 for Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, BC
- 1-888-488-2611 for Clinique Nouveau Depart in Montreal, QC
[i] Lubman, D. I. (2015). Overcoming alcohol and other drug addiction as a process of social identity transition: the social identity model of recovery (SIMOR). Addiction Research & Theory, 24(2), 111–123. doi:10.3109/16066359.2015.1075980
[ii] Hoebel, B. G., Avena, N. M., Bocarsly, M. E., & Rada, P. (2009). Natural addiction: A behavioral and circuit model based on sugar addiction in rats. Journal of Addiction Medicine, 3, 33-41.
[iii] Li, X. (2008). The effects of appetitive stimuli on out-of-domain consumption impatience. The Journal of Consumer Research, 34, 649–656.
[iv] Van den Bergh, B., Dewitte, S., & Warlop, L. (2008). Bikinis instigate generalized impatience in intertemporal choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 85–97.
[v] Best, D., Beckwith, M., Haslam, C., Alexander Haslam, S., Jetten, J., Mawson, E., & Lubman, D. I. (2015). Overcoming alcohol and other drug addiction as a process of social identity transition: the social identity model of recovery (SIMOR). Addiction Research & Theory, 24(2), 111–123. doi:10.3109/16066359.2015.1075980
[vi] Zywiak, W., Neighbors, C., Martin, R., Johnson, J., Eaton, C., & Rosenhow, D. (2009). The important people drug and alcohol interview: Psychometric properties, predictive validity and implications for treatment. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 36, 321–330.